Opinion – Responses from Beijing and the Hong Kong Government to Protests

The remarks made by the Chinese President Xi Jinping and two officials of the Hong Kong Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) on September 3 were politically significant for Hong Kong, which has remained engulfed in the anti-extradition movement since June 2019.

In a speech delivered at the Central Party School, Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), said on September 3 that “persistent struggle” is necessary in response to all the challenges to (1) the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the mainland socialist system; (2) China’s national sovereignty, security and developmental interests; (3) its core interests and major principles; (4) the people’s fundamental interests; and (5) the objective of realizing the renaissance of the Chinese nation.

President Xi added that struggle is an “art” that needs to maintain its justifications, “reasonable choices,” methods and momentum while simultaneously retaining an ingredient of flexibility in its strategic response. In the process of struggle, President Xi remarked that solidarity is of utmost importance. He stressed that the principle of “persistent struggle” is a must in dealing with the challenges of the “complex” work on Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as well as the PRC’s foreign relations. 

On the same day, the HKMAO spokespersons emphasized three major points on the Hong Kong disturbances: (1) the hope for consensus and collective action for the government and society of Hong Kong to “stop violence and terminate chaos;” (2) the expectation that the people of Hong Kong can distinguish the peaceful expression of views from violent criminal acts; and (3) the need for Hong Kong people to focus on economic development and the improvement of livelihood issues.

The HKMAO spokesman Yang Guang added that the “five demands” of some Hong Kong people constituted not only an attempt of “political hijacking” but also a move to challenge the bottom line of the “one country, two systems.” These demands could be regarded as, according to the HKMAO, “political intimidation.”

The political opposition in Hong Kong, according to Yang, is trying to grasp political power and any discussion of “universal suffrage” must go back to the PRC parameters that were set out on August 31, 2014. 

The remarks made by President Xi and the HKMAO sent clear messages to the people of Hong Kong, especially the local democrats and protestors. The protest movement in Hong Kong is seen by the central government in Beijing, according to the HKMAO’s earlier position on August 7, as having “signs of color revolution” that involves foreign countries.

The anti-extradition movement, from the HKMAO’s perspective on September 3, changed its nature and has become an attempt by the local political opposition to capture political power. As such, this “hostile” movement must be met by the PRC government in the form of “persistent struggles,” to borrow from President Xi’s term.

Most importantly, the demand for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, according to Beijing, must accept the central government’s political bottom line clearly delineated on August 31, 2014, meaning that the Chief Executive would be directly elected by eligible voters after a process of having half of the members of an Election Committee to support two to three candidates, who would then compete among themselves for votes and whose final victory would get the formal approval from Beijing.

In fact, Beijing implied that it was a blunder made by the local democrats to reject the political reform package in mid-2015.

Finally, if the Hong Kong situation does not improve and even worsens, and if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or the People’s Armed Police (PAP) were deployed to assist the police in Hong Kong, such a move, according to the HKMAO on September 3, would still be in conformity with the content of the Basic Law.

This position serves as a warning to those Hong Kong protestors who, according to Beijing, are constantly challenging the national security and sovereignty of the central government.

The clear position of both President Xi and the HKMAO came at a time when Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam publicly denied that she had offered to resign. Her clarification was made on September 3, shortly after a report from Reuters that showed her emotional but perhaps inappropriate remarks during a gathering with a group of business people.

Carrie Lam told the business elites that if she had a choice, she would resign and make a deep apology for her “unforgivable havoc” that wrecked Hong Kong. She had admitted that the extradition saga was elevated to the level of Beijing’s national security and sovereignty, especially at a time when the United States and China were engaging in a trade war. 

On September 3, Carrie Lam tried to repair the damage of the business elite’s leakage of her comments by saying that she had not chosen to resign. Nevertheless, her image as a weak political leader with fluctuating mood and decisions is irreparable.

As a non-Marxist Chief Executive in Hong Kong, Carrie Lam is naturally expected by Beijing to follow the President’s instruction, namely adopting an attitude of “persistent struggle” with the forces that challenge the central government’s national security and sovereignty.

The remarks made by President Xi and HKMAO had an immediate effect on some members of the Hong Kong and Macao Study Association, which advertised in Tai Kung Pao on September 4 that the people of Hong Kong should realize the truth of the current disturbances, especially the fact that Hong Kong has already been used by external forces as a chess game in the international geopolitical struggle between China and the United States.

The advertisement added that the image of the “one country, two systems” needs to be protected regionally and internationally, and that the people of Hong Kong should support both the Chief Executive and the police force in order to restore public and social order in the territory.

The strong position adopted by President Xi and the HKMAO could be seen as formal response to the violent attacks by protestors in various districts in Hong Kong on August 31, when some 100 petrol bombs were used and when arson attacks were seen in places like Wanchai and Tsimshatsui.

On September 1, radical protestors damaged half of the stations of the Mass Transit Railways, desecrated the PRC national flags in Tung Chung district, blocked access routes to the airport, forced travelers to walk from Tung Chung into the airport terminals, and crippled airport train services. 

On September 2, when the first day of the school semester began, thousands of youngsters joined a strike by boycotting classes at not only universities but also some secondary schools. The class boycott did not appear to have a serious impact on the society. Neither President Xi nor the HKMAO commented on these young people who used peaceful means to express their views. Instead, Beijing asks the people of Hong Kong to distinguish the peaceful protestors from the violent ones.

While US President Donald Trump tried to link the issue of how the PRC handles Hong Kong with trade negotiations, Beijing stands tough and does not give in to any American pressure. As such, the PRC remains a tough negotiator separating the Hong Kong issue from its diplomatic relations with any other foreign states.     

On September 4, Carrie Lam met the pro-government elites to explain her intention of withdrawing the extradition bill. She refused to use the word “withdrawal” from June to August, except for suspending the bill and saying that it was “dead.” 

Her formal announcement that the extradition bill was withdrawn in the late afternoon of September 4 was an attempt by the government to appease the anger of many ordinary citizens, trying to calm down at least some protestors and to defuse the entire crisis. 

While some Hong Kong people see her move as a positive step, others see it as long overdue and still hope that she would set up an independent commission of inquiry to look into the causes and remedies of the entire disturbances, including the performance of the police force.

The government is reluctant to set up an independent commission at this stage, but the membership of the existing Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) is expanded to involve two new members. The Chief Executive said that experts and academics would be invited to study the root causes of the disturbances for the sake of coming up with proposed remedies. 

The Chief Executive’s announcement of withdrawing the bill is seen by some critics as relatively too little and too late, partly because the legitimacy of her government had already been severely undermined and partly because the wounds incurred to the society cannot be easily healed.

Furthermore, the guerilla-style and tech-savvy protests in Hong Kong have become a “new normal” not only taking place frequently on Saturdays and Sundays but also constituting a new mode of political participation that constantly challenges the legitimacy of the Hong Kong government and the bottom line of the central authorities in Beijing.

Eventually, both Beijing and the Hong Kong government collectively respond to the five demands of the Hong Kong protestors. Beijing responds to the call for universal suffrage by urging the people of Hong Kong to return to the political parameter established by the central government on the future method of electing the Chief Executive on August 31, 2014.

This relatively hardline position of Beijing is accompanied by a comparatively soft-line approach adopted by the Hong Kong leadership. The Carrie Lam administration finally decided to withdraw the extradition bill, but it cannot easily accept the other demands of the protestors, including an amnesty of the arrested persons.

If the protestors’ call for universal suffrage was met with a repeat of the central government’s position, and if their demand for an independent commission of inquiry cannot be met at this moment, some radicals would likely continue to resist and oppose the government in the coming months.

Hence, the joint responses from Beijing and the Hong Kong leadership can cool down some peaceful protestors, thus stabilizing the society of Hong Kong to some but a limited extent. For the radical protestors, the responses from Beijing and the Hong Kong government remain insufficient.